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The British General Election of 2010, By Dennis Kavanagh & Philip Cowley
Hung Together, By Adam Boulton & Joey Jones
22 Days in May, By David Laws
History was made at the last election. And now, the coalition deal done, the truth can be told
Sunday 28 November 2010
The first Conservative prime minister in 13 years; the first Lib-Con government since 1922; the first coalition to come fresh out of a general election in a century-and-a-half. There were many big, historic political stories in 2010, but the most disturbing one is tucked away in appendix two of the standard study, The British General Election of 2010, compiled by Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley. There, John Curtice, now the nation's top elections expert, reveals what a nasty little racist country Britain still is. There can be no other explanation for the fact that, allowing for all other economic and social variables, ethnic-minority candidates fielded by the major parties in largely white constituencies fared worse than their white counterparts in similar seats. In the privacy of the polling booth, too many of us will not vote for a party because the candidate is the wrong colour. That is a shaming thing.
The last general election, its predecessor "that never was" in 2007, and the formation of the coalition, left many puzzles behind. "Bigotgate", for example, was not quite the game-changer it seemed. Gordon Brown's remarks about Gillian Duffy gave us the most dramatic moment of the election but not the most important: those came in the TV debates.
Living as we are now through an episode of what might be termed "Anti-Cleggmania", it takes an effort to recall just how popular that nice Nick Clegg used to be – especially with students. The original Cleggmania was entirely a product of television, for all the Liberal Democrat leader did to propel himself into contention for Number 10 was to note down the names of his questioners, look directly into the camera and ham up his "Two old parties" lines relentlessly.
In Hung Together, with an air of satisfaction shading into smugness, Adam Boulton and Joey Jones of Sky News concur with Kavanagh et al that this was the first true television election, when TV lost its inferiority complex towards press, let alone the "new media". For Sky News journalists, long patronised by ITN and the BBC, it must have been an even sweeter moment: the credit for the innovation lies with Sky's head of news, John Ryley, who fought a dogged and initially lonely campaign. It probably started as a bit of a stunt; it ended up changing the constitution. That should more than make up for Alastair Campbell's outrageous attacks on Boulton's impartiality during their famous on-air spat. Unlike Andrew Gilligan, Boulton was rather too big a beast for Campbell to take on, though I have to register an objection to Boulton's description of Rupert Murdoch, majority proprietor of Sky, as a "soft target". (Last I looked, the old boy was as hard-boiled as ever.)
So what happened to the Clegg bounce? Part of it was that so many of Clegg's supporters were young and unregistered voters (perhaps just as well given their subsequent disappointments). The other factor sniffed out by Boulton and Jones as they followed the politicians around is that the Lib Dems were subjected to a traditional pincer attack from the other two parties in the last days of the contest, each of them claiming that a vote for Clegg would let either Brown or Cameron in. (The fact that both couldn't be right didn't matter.)
As to whom Clegg did let in, David Laws, the Lib Dem MP for Yeovil, provides a compelling case that the only practical possibility was the Tories. Laws is a funny chap, and 22 Days in May is the first political testimony with quite so many references to the "rather dull sandwiches" provided by the civil service in the multi-party talks. What was evidently even less palatable to Laws was the Labour party's attitude to his party, which was about as patronising as everyone else in the media used to be towards Sky News. If, like me, you were half hoping for a "progressive coalition" of the Lib Dems and Labour, then you need to know who killed this dream: Ed "Tribal" Balls, who effectively sabotaged the talks. But in doing so, he saved the Lib Dems from having to choose between viable offers from both parties, which really would have split them down the middle.
Yet that leaves another mystery: an entirely fictional offer from Labour of electoral reform without having to bother with a referendum. This mysterious non-offer is denied by all concerned, and is absent from the Laws account, but somehow it so embedded itself in Cameron's mind that he used it to bounce his MPs into agreeing his deal with the Lib Dems for fear of a Lib-Lab pact. Clegg afterwards claimed that "it might have been an offer that might have been made and that might have been considered". Could our historic coalition be founded on a muddle? Might have been.
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